United passenger says he was bumped for ‘higher priority’ customer, threatened with handcuffs

United Airlines planes sit on the tarmac at San Francisco International Airport in July 2015.

Combined ShapeCaption
United Airlines planes sit on the tarmac at San Francisco International Airport in July 2015.

A California man went public on Tuesday with claims that United Airlines employees mistreated him earlier this month, threatening him with handcuffs when he refused to give up his seat to a “higher priority” passenger.

Geoff Fearns made his claims public after seeing several viral videos that showed a Kentucky doctor being forcibly and violently dragged off his flight home from Chicago on Sunday after United employees told passengers the flight was overbooked. The incident and the carrier’s response to it have caused outrage and a dramatic financial loss for the company.

Fearns’ story is now adding fuel to that outrage.

Fearns, founder and president of TriPacific Capital Investments in Irvine, told CBS Los Angeles that he flew to Hawaii for a business conference last week, but had to return a day early. He paid $1,000 for a first-class, full-fare ticket home.

Fearns said that all went smoothly until after he had boarded the plane and was sitting in his seat, awaiting takeoff. A United employee boarded the plane and demanded that he give up his seat because the flight was overbooked.

"She said, 'We have a priority list, and you're at the bottom of it,'" Fearns told CBS Los Angeles. "The guy sitting next to me, who's apparently a United frequent flyer, said, 'Hey man! They get really nasty about this stuff. They'll call the cops on you.' And I'm like, 'For what? For sitting in my assigned seat?'"

He told the news station that the female employee grew increasingly demanding as he continued to refuse to give up his seat for a more important passenger. Eventually, he relented, and was offered a compromise of an economy seat for the flight home.

But not before he was threatened with handcuffs, Fearns told the Los Angeles Times.

"I understand you might bump people because a flight is full. But they didn't say anything at the gate," Fearns told the newspaper. "I was already in the seat. And now they were telling me I had no choice. They said they'd put me in cuffs if they had to."

Fearns’ experience sounds remarkably similar to the one described by witnesses who saw and recorded United’s forcible removal on Sunday of David Dao, a 69-year-old Elizabethtown, Kentucky, doctor who refused to get off his flight, stating that he had patients to see on Monday and needed to get home. Flight staff had three O’Hare International Airport police officers board the plane and the officers physically removed Dao from his seat and dragged him, limp and bloodied, up the aisle and off of the plane.

All three officers have been placed on leave while Chicago’s Aviation Department investigates the incident.

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Fearns told CBS Los Angeles that it was just days after his own negative experience that he and his wife saw the videos of Dao being ejected from his flight.

“My wife joked about it,” Fearns said. “If I’d waited five more minutes, she said, ‘That would have been you on TV.’”

Fearns said he consulted an attorney upon his return to California and submitted a formal complaint to United CEO Oscar Munoz. In response, he got an offer for a $500 travel voucher and the difference in cost between his first-class ticket and an economy ticket.

He also got an email apology.

“It’s not the way you wanted to travel, and I regret we didn’t meet your expectations,” the response read. “Despite the negative experience, we hope to have your continued support.”

Fearns said that isn’t going to happen.

"Ludicrous," he said. "I wouldn't fly United on a bet."

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